Humanistic approach to spatial design

I’ve always been fascinated by how you can transform spaces, create an atmosphere and especially not letting yourself be restricted or limited by what you have to work with. I caught up with Spatial Designer Owain Caruana-Davies, to reflect on what meaning space has.

The sea, castles, fortresses and abandoned steel works in Wales sparked creativity in Owain and became as much part of his work, as his identity. Moving between nine different homes and growing up with parents who constantly took on new projects to redesign, led Owain to a native and inborn instinct to practice design and craft from early years. The fortresses he admired as a child and the majestic sea, took him on an inquisitive path, not only to become a designer but also to further discover his practice as a Creative. He is now on a mission to turn a retired cruise ship in Dubai into a inhabitable space once again.

What made you decide to not pursue a career as an architect but to turn to spatial design instead?

I studied Architecture in Oxford and realised that I didn’t want be an architect after all. I wanted to have more creative freedom and discover my practice as an artist and designer. You don’t have to be an architect to design good buildings that can change how people live. Anyone can do it.

I think that the more diverse backgrounds, the better the designs will be, rather than everyone coming from the same path and designing in the same way.

What is spatial design?

As a spatial designer you usually come in at the end of life of a space and you’re looking to have the space transformed into something else. This is where you decide which parts you keep, which parts you change, by constantly asking questions such as – how can we improve quality of this space?

It always feels such a shame when a building is knocked down completely, because so much time, energy and design goes into these projects. There is also the sentimental value, thinking about the many different people who have lived in it, used the space, made it their home and I see their stories getting combined and going into the brick work. The worn bits always tell a story of how people have used the space that stand out to me. It is a documentation of the use of space that raises questions such as; how can that be brought forward and used again? How can the stories of its previous inhabitants live on?

Which building in the world is your favourite?
Neues museum in Berlin. The museum was originally built from between 1843 and 1855 and was closed at the beginning of World War II in 1939 since it was heavily damaged during the bombing of Berlin. It reopened again 2009 and it had taken the English architect David Chipperfield twelve years to redesign this neoclassical building. It’s basically a curating exercise.

Your master’s research project was about post-industrial obsolescence through intervention and inhabitation. Tell me about your project.

I wanted to look at spaces that have reached the end of life and see how they can be brought forward and used again with a new purpose. I knew about the ship Queen Elizabeth II through some architectural drawings that I had found. Ships are built so solidly to withstand the forces of the sea with incredibly strong structures but the average lifespan of a ship on the sea is twenty-six years. The structural integrity can allow them to last a lot longer than this. At the same time you think, can places that have been in the water and the darkness for years be exposed to light again? I wanted to look at how retired ships could be reused and re-inhabited again, to form new spaces for people to use.

The ship Queen Elizabeth II had been transported to Dubai ten years ago whilst waiting to be repurposed or scrapped. It is deteriorating quite quickly now, as it was designed for weather conditions to sail across the Atlantic. Cruise ships such as Queen Elizabeth II are huge, basically floating cities that can hold thousands of people and the project scale was both incredibly exciting but also quite daunting.

There are usually plans for turning retired ships into hotels or shopping centres but often since its not done quickly enough, they end up being scrapped. Often they’re taken to Alang in India or Bangladesh and demolished in quite brutal ways by being driven full speed into the beaches. As the tide goes back the workers start dismantling the ship bit by bit with gas blowtorches. Some of the parts are being reused but it is neither sustainable nor a safe or healthy process for the workers.

Photography: Owain Caruana-Davies,

In my endeavour to find a new purpose for previously obsolete spaces to live, I wanted to understand what would happen if you could cut the ship into smaller fragments that then could be transported and potentially used again. I found out that ships are actually being divided into smaller parts, sometimes by using diamonds wire. They’re cut through like cheese and you can see all of the incredible cross sections through the inside and how the ship works.

My idea is to take these fragments and make them into spaces people could use, in new locations. One Idea is based on a tilted section of the ship, so the floors become the walls and this would be used as vertical garden. The bottom layers would be sandy, gradually changing with the height of the installation. Different plants would inhabit the garden and people passing by could go in there to enjoy the yellow stair intervention that playfully cuts through the garden spaces.

My motivation is for people to experience space differently and to think: I’ve never been to a space like this.

See more of Owain’s work OCD Architecture